Local First: an excellent (and practical) counterweight to the more top-down versions of ‘doing development differently’

I’ve been both engaged and excited by a lot of the recent networking on ‘thinking and working politically’/’doing development differently’, which emphasizes the importance of understanding and working with the grain of local context, and a project cycle which replaces ‘The Plan’ with a messy process of trying, failing, learning and adapting (and trying again). But one anxiety I have is that it all feels very top down – clever political scientists, often working for big aid agencies, getting better at driving reforms through recalcitrant governments. The risk is that issues of power, rights and justice too easily get lost in the fascinating discussion of nuts and bolts, what works etc and (for example) we end up helping govelf-in-practice-cover-210x300rnments that routinely kill or suppress their opponents ‘deliver development’.

So I gave thanks when I read ‘Local First in Practice’ a new book (and separate summary) by Rosie Pinnington of Peace Direct, which describes itself as ‘an international agency that finds, funds and promotes the work of local peacebuilders in conflict zones worldwide’.

The book sets out a process of barefoot ‘doing development differently’ from the bottom up, providing an important counterweight to more top down approaches. And it’s not just a lot of NGO waffle about the need for participation – it’s stuffed full of good practical examples. It also highlights the importance of basing any intervention on the strengths and assets of the local community, rather than sending in outside ‘experts’ to identify gaps and then trying to fill them.

It covers a series of themes, with a set of practical recommendations on each:

  • Identifying and supporting local capacity
  • Listening to local voices to develop responses and approaches
  • Using funding mechanisms that enable rather than distort local entities
  • Supporting local actors to work together to achieve greater impact

It then distils these into a set of ‘good practice principles’ and key recommendations which are worth reproducing in full:

Good Practice Principles:

1. Listening: design and adjust according to locally-felt concerns and shifts in the local context; listen to and act upon information and feedback received.

2. Harnessing and deploying latent capabilities: before identifying gaps and needs, look at what already exists in terms of local resources and capabilities, and how they can be supported.

3. Providing support in a timely and responsive way: use small-grant mechanisms to respond to opportunities as they arise and to react to particular events; provide capacity support that is driven by local realities and priorities.

4. Promoting participation: in all stages (research, planning, implementation, monitoring), facilitate participation that empowers local actors to influence and drive processes of change in their societies. Participation can also promote accountability.

5. Recognising that change is a process: rather than leading, facilitate progressive, cumulative change over time; be open to testing, learning and developing through long-term engagement and repeated cycles of action.

Don't ignore the small fish
Small fish matter too

6. Broadening the definition of success: balance the prioritisation of results to include both tangible and less tangible aims (such as changes in attitudes and behaviours).

Key Recommendations:

1. Move away from big aid to small, targeted and strategic funding. An approach of this kind could range from core funding (to help an organisation develop on its own terms) to activity-based allocations (to help local actors respond to specific opportunities or changes in their environment).

2. Nurture more beneficent and flexible bureaucratic environments. This could be as simple as ensuring that grant managers are available to talk to grantees over the phone as an informal feedback and monitoring approach.

3. Create space for ideas and new approaches to be tested and developed. This is connected to: having faith in the ideas of local partners; creating space for local actors to shape the design of programmes; and conceding that change is a cumulative process where learning through mistakes is as important as achieving successes.

4. Develop shared approaches for measuring ‘intangible’ aims and outcomes.

5. Develop staff performance metrics that encourage locally led practice.

6. Remove pressure to spend and stringent ‘value for money’ cultures in aid bureaucracies.

This strikes me as a really excellent summary of a bottom-up approach to thinking and working politically. But I live in meta-land, an awful long way from anything resembling a field. So is this all old hat, old wine in a new TWP bottle, or something really worth picking up and running with? And what’s missing?

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


5 Responses to “Local First: an excellent (and practical) counterweight to the more top-down versions of ‘doing development differently’”
  1. John Magrath

    Back to the future indeed. This is exactly how international aid agencies used to operate most all the time in the 80s + early 90s. What’s missing ? – is any analysis why all this was ditched, suppressed, fell out of fashion….

  2. Ben Ramalingam

    Can we really to point back to a golden age of decades past when aid worked in more bottom-up, respectful way? If this really was the case, then why did Prof. Chambers critiques of top-down aid – written in the 1980s and 1990s – have such power and resonance?

    On a separate note, it is worth thinking about how to link these approaches to discussions about the effectiveness of aid.

    In the work I led recently for a consortium of NGOs on partnerships in humanitarian aid (http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/missed-opportunities-the-case-for-strengthening-national-and-local-partnership-302657), we studied partnerships in four different emergency settings – Haiti, Pakistan, DRC and Kenya. We assessed partnership approaches in terms of their contribution to the OECD aid effectiveness criteria: relevance, appropriateness, effectiveness, efficiency, connectedness, and coverage. There were clear gains in some areas of working in partnership mode, but this was offset by challenges in other areas.

    Of course this raises the obvious point that partnerships and bottom-up approaches are not a panacea for performance ailments of the aid sector. But they may well be the right thing to do.

  3. John Magrath

    Can we really to point back to a golden age of decades past when aid worked in more bottom-up, respectful way? – yes, but I should have clarified that I was thinking of NGOs like Christian Aid, Oxfam and others when I said ‘international aid agencies’. Not top down aid by governments. The good practice principles in this report are exactly how Oxfam tried to work in some decades past in development – often conflict – situations(ways Robert Chambers would approve of). There are some valid reasons why we don’t (much) any more, e.g. the striving after ‘bigger impact’, but lots of poor reasons I think for abandoning such a Peace Direct-like model. Among them I’d guess pressure from donors, the temptations of bureaucracy and centralisation, (misplaced?) ambition…